Can Evolution Match This?

So clear and compelling a seven-year-old can understand it.  That’s the boast of young-earth creationist leader Ken Ham.  As proof, he published the lecture notes of one of his young audience members.

Image Source: Answers In Genesis

Image Source: Answers In Genesis

Image Source: Answers In Genesis

Image Source: Answers In Genesis

Image Source: Answers In Genesis

Image Source: Answers In Genesis

For those of us hoping to improve evolution education in the United States, Ham’s revelation raises a serious question: Can evolution hope to match the gut-level appeal of creationism?

Science pundits have long noticed this yawning gap between the popular acceptability of mainstream science and that of creation science.  The most clear-headed writers have admitted that creationism has better stories.

As Richard Dawkins put it in his 1996 book The Blind Watchmaker,

It is almost as if the human brain were specifically designed to misunderstand Darwinism, and to find it hard to believe.

The creation stories of young-earth creationists, on the other hand, are appealing to all age levels.  There’s a garden, there’s love, there’s disobedience, there’s punishment.  All of these are powerful themes that resonate with young and old alike.

And, lest we evolution-embracers smugly conclude that this stark advantage of creationism will fade as audiences get more intelligent and more sophisticated, let’s remember that creationism’s advantage also pulls in the intellectually sophisticated.

ILYBYGTH readers may remember the postmodern plea of journalist Virginia Heffernan.  A few months back, Heffernan declared her affinity for creationism over evolution.  Why?  In her words,

I was amused and moved, but considerably less amused and moved by the character-free Big Bang story (“something exploded”) than by the twisted and picturesque misadventures of Eve and Adam and Cain and Abel and Abraham.

Obviously, something doesn’t need a compelling narrative in order to be true.  But in the stubborn culture wars over evolution and creationism, popular appeal matters.  Evolution’s biggest selling point is that it does a better job of explaining and predicting than does creationism.  Maybe the winning narratives won’t be the detailed natural-selection classic tales starring finches and moths, but rather the far more stirring story of enlightenment triumphing over dunderheaded fogeys.

That’s a good story.  At least it worked for Kevin Bacon in Footloose.


Call Me, New York Times

Did you see it yet?

All of us who follow creation/evolution debates have likely read by now the “Room for Debate” essays in the New York Times the other day.

The jumping-off point, it seems, was Virginia Heffernan’s recent claim that she is a creationist.  The editors asked contributors, “Is it really so controversial to believe in biblical creationism?”

Each essay is short and pithy.  Certainly worth your time.  They include fourteen cents altogether, two each from an evangelical physicist, a liberal theologian, an evangelical apologist, a Muslim pundit, a political scientist, a law professor, and a theologian/environmentalist.  All in all, an interesting and idiosyncratic collection of opinions on the subject.

But here’s my beef: Where is education in all these voices?

Other scribblers, I’m sure, will ask other questions.  For example, where is atheism?  Or any sort of strong argument that it is, indeed, a big problem to believe in biblical creationism?

The editors would not have had to work hard to find a good atheist to contribute.  Even outside the big names such as Jerry Coyne or PZ Myers, plenty of articulate atheists could have offered a strong opinion about the dangers of believing in biblical creationism.

More directly relevant to readers of ILYBYGTH, where is the voice of education?

IMHO, the issue of “biblical creationism” would not be nearly as controversial if Americans did not have to decide what to teach in our public schools.

As Professor Giberson noted in his piece, “The brouhaha about ‘biblical creation’ is really a proxy war about the reality of meaning in the world.”

Well put.  But that proxy war is fought primarily in boards of education, in classrooms and PTA meetings, in state textbook meetings, and in thousands of other school-related battlefields.  The evolution/creation controversy is not primarily an issue simply of scientific or theological disagreement about epistemology and ontology.  There are plenty of other issues on which people do not agree that have not had the tumultuous career of the creation/evolution debates.

In short, the brouhaha over reality of meaning is only a brouhaha because we need to decide on what sorts of meanings we will teach our children.

It would have helped this discussion enormously, I believe, if someone had pointed this out; if at least one contributor made education his or her primary intellectual interest.  I’m not only saying this because I wish the NYT had called me.  Though I do work for peanuts.

In the bigger picture, leaving an “education” voice out of a creation/evolution debate has long been a problem for those of us trying to understand the issue.  Too often, creation/evolution is framed as an issue of science and religion.  Science and religion only.  As if the truth of life’s origins remained the primary source of controversy.

That makes it difficult to understand the real issues.  As thoughtful scholars such as Randy Moore, Lee Meadows, Michael Berkman & Eric Plutzer, and David Long have pointed out, creation/evolution is not only about “the reality of meaning in the world.”  The rubber hits the road in this culture-war issue with individual students, in specific classrooms, day after day, decade after decade.

Unless we recognize the importance of the way creation/evolution plays out in such real-life environments, we will not move forward.

So, for the record, the next time any editor wants to corral a herd of scholars to comment on creation/evolution issues, please be sure to include someone with a primary interest in evolution.

It doesn’t have to be me.  But I’m always available.

I will also talk about creation/evolution at Labor Day cookouts, Bar/Bat Mitzvahs, awkward crowded elevator rides, or any other event.  Just call me!


Creationism in the Business World

Forbes Magazine is not known for its religious fervency.

Yet, thanks to the all-seeing eye of the Sensuous Curmudgeon, we see that Forbes has welcomed to its pages some creationist commentary.

Just as we saw last month an odd creationist duck with Virginia Heffernan’s “postmodern creationism,” we now see a surprising sort of CPA creationism.  Forbes commentator Peter J. Reilly describes the tax difficulties of controversial creationist celebrity Kent Hovind.

This is not the first time Reilly has commented on Hovind’s tax dilemmas for Forbes readers.

But in his most recent column, Reilly does more than cover the Hovind tax story.  In his recent contribution, Reilly admits, “I’m probably something of a creationist myself.”  Though Reilly hedges a little bit by putting himself “at the far left of the creationist spectrum,” it is intriguing to see “creationism” embraced in this way.

Of course, conservative politicians have long gone to great lengths to support creationism.  Marco Rubio’s recent waffle in his GQ interview is just one example.

But it has been less common for conservative writers and commentators outside of the circles of evangelical Protestantism to embrace creationism.  Non-Protestant conservative intellectuals often maintain a polite silence on the issue, or assert a bland sort of openness to the idea of divine creation.

Reilly’s statement, like Virginia Heffernan’s, seems more provocative.

Could it become fashionable for pundits to embrace “creationism” even if they don’t represent the stereotype of “fundamentalist” Protestant believer?



Postmodern Creationism: A Better Story

Add a new category to the creationist bloc in America: postmodernists who don’t “believe” anything.

Journalist Virginia Heffernan has caused a mini-uproar this week by explaining why she’s a creationist.

In a recent essay on Yahoo! News, Heffernan argued that the stories of creationism are simply more “compelling” than those of mainstream science.  In her telling, she wanted to embrace science, since she loves technology.  But science just doesn’t have the right stories.  In her words,

I was amused and moved, but considerably less amused and moved by the character-free Big Bang story (“something exploded”) than by the twisted and picturesque misadventures of Eve and Adam and Cain and Abel and Abraham.

Predictably, science pundits reacted with dismay.  University of Chicago biologist Jerry Coyne lambasted Heffernan’s “remarkable celebration of ignorance.”   University of Minnesota biologist PZ Myers noted Heffernan’s anti-science history: “every time she meets a scientist she opens her mouth and says something stupid . . . .”

Also predictably, evangelical Christians defended Heffernan.  In the Christian Post, journalist Leonardo Blair noted that Heffernan had become a “lightning rod for ridicule,” but that she has also won support from religious people for “standing by her beliefs.”

It seems to me, however, that both the fervent anti-creationist commentators and the evangelical pro-creationists ignore the central thrust of Heffernan’s essay.  Heffernan is not making a case for the truth of creationism.  Indeed, as she explains, “I guess I don’t ‘believe’ that the world was created in a few days, but what do I know? Seems as plausible (to me) as theoretical astrophysics, and it’s certainly a livelier tale.”  This is not a full-throated defense of Biblical creationism.  Instead, Heffernan is making a case for the plausibility of creationism.

And, as far as that goes, she’s right.  Creationism is more than just a religious belief.  It is a convincing and intuitive way of understanding humanity’s predicament.  This is why leading science educators have recognized that simply pouring more science on Americans will never convince them of the truths of evolution.

Heffernan’s attitude does not result from childhood brainwashing in the Bible.  Heffernan does not howl at mainstream institutions from the wilds of San Diego or Northern Kentucky.  She complains, instead, that it is hard to admit to creationism in New York restaurants, to acquaintances from her jobs, perhaps, at the New Yorker or New York Times.  With her handy PhD from Harvard, Heffernan’s attitude does not come from a lack of mainstream education.

Heffernan’s avowed creationism, instead, comes from an over-abundance of mainstream education.  Her attack on mainstream science comes not from Genesis, as she suggests elsewhere, but from Derrida.

Other creation/evolution commentators have made similar points, without going as far as embracing creationism.  Jason Rosenhouse, for instance, in his book Among the Creationists, admits that creationist explanations of life and humanity are much more appealing than the messy truths of mainstream science.

Unlike Rosenhouse, Heffernan takes the postmodern leap.  IF we have no Archimedean perspective from which we can judge competing truth claims, THEN we are forced to choose between competing narratives.  BECAUSE creationism has the better narrative, Heffernan concludes, she must call herself a creationist.

Plus, it generates better headlines to say “I’m a creationist” than to say “Creationism tells better stories of humanity’s origins, but I don’t really believe those stories, but you gotta admit, they are better stories, plus scientists can sometimes be jerks.”